As Outbreaks Continue, Expanded Testing Aims To Limit COVID-19 At Long-Term Care Facilities

Apr 17, 2020

A sign on Boston Post Road in Amherst acknowledges the risks faced by healthcare workers, including employees of the state's nursing homes.
Credit Emily Quirk/NHPR

New Hampshire’s long-term care facilities continue to grapple with outbreaks of COVID-19, as state officials say newly revised testing standards should make it easier to identify coronavirus infections and act quickly before they spread.

Long-term care facilities serving some of the state’s most medically fragile – including nursing homes and facilities for people with severe disabilities – make up a growing share of the state coronavirus cases and account for roughly half of COVID-19 deaths. Health officials announced three new deaths from COVID-19 on Friday, two of them at nursing homes. The Easter Seals Residential Program in Manchester is the latest facility to record an outbreak of COVID-19.  Sixteen residents and 16 staff have tested positive at the residential facility, which treats young people with developmental disabilities.  

Until this week, the state encouraged facilities to only test for COVID-19 in residents or staff who were symptomatic. But under new guidelines, if one resident is diagnosed with COVID-19, the state is now testing all residents in that particular unit, regardless of symptoms.

“As soon as we receive reports of symptomatic residents or staff, our first action now is to go in and get everybody tested,” Health and Human Services Commissioner Lori Shibinette said at a Friday afternoon press conference in Concord. "It allows the department to identify facility outbreaks quicker and with more accuracy,”

New Hampshire health officials have identified outbreaks at six long-term care facilities, and cases at those institutions have accounted for half of the deaths linked to COVID-19 in the state and dozens of the reported cases.

Several of those outbreaks were announced this week. The Residence at Salem Woods nursing home has 21 residents and four staff who have tested positive. According to a Salem Woods spokesman, all are tied to the facility’s memory care unit. Bellamy Fields in Dover, which specializes in residential care for people with Alzheimer’s disease, has seen 12 residents and eight staff test positive. Dr. John Hopkins, who owns the facility, said residents there are particularly prone to spreading infection.

“When you have people with Alzheimer’s, they like to touch everything and walk around and leave the water in the sinks running and plant and replant the flowers,” he said. "They are very busy people."

At the Institute of Professional Practice in Concord, which treats children and adults with autism and other developmental disabilities, one resident and six staff members have tested positive for COVID-19.

Three other long-term care facilities in the state had already reported outbreaks and deaths related to COVID-19: Hanover Hill nursing home in Manchester, Crotched Mountain Rehabilitation in Greenfield, and The Huntington assisted living facility in Nashua.

Dr. Ben Chan, the state epidemiologist who is overseeing the state’s response to COVID-19, said the newly expanded testing can inform how facilities with vulnerable populations manage an outbreak. That might mean isolating residents who have tested positive and identifying staff who may be symptomatic to prevent them from treating someone who doesn't have COVID-19.

State officials announced earlier this week that they have hired Convenient MD to test at all residential facilities in Rockingham and Hillsborough counties but says mobile testing may be expanded to other counties.